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Letter to Congress in Support of Strong, Effective Ethics Reform

 

April 24, 2006
   

Dear Representative:

 

At a time when citizens are deeply concerned about the corruption and lobbying scandals in Congress, our organizations believe it is essential for the House to adopt strong, effective and comprehensive reform measures to address these scandals.

 

The organizations include the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.

 

H.R. 4975, the lobbying and ethics bill sponsored by the House Republican leadership, is scheduled to come to the floor on April 27.

 

This legislation fails to provide real and effective reform of the lobbying laws and congressional ethics rules.  We urge you to vote against H.R. 4975 unless the bill is greatly strengthened on the House floor and turned into acceptable legislation.

 

H.R.4975 represents an effort by Members to have it both ways - holding on to the financial benefits and perks they receive from lobbyists and other special interests, while claiming that they have dealt with the lobbying and ethics problems in Congress.

 

The public will not be fooled by this phony game.

 

In a letter sent on April 19, we urged you to support the Shays-Meehan amendment to H.R. 4975 to establish an Office of Public Integrity for Congress (OPI).

 

We also urged you to oppose any rule to bring H.R. 4975 to the floor that prohibits Members from voting on the Shays-Meehan proposal and on other important strengthening amendments to the bill.

 

In addition to voting for the Shays-Meehan OPI proposal, we urge you to support the following amendments to strengthen H.R. 4975, and to vote to ensure that these amendments are allowed to be voted on by Members:

  • An amendment to provide permanent, not temporary, restrictions on privately-financed trips for Members;

  • An amendment to require that Members pay charter costs for planes made available by corporations and others to Members for their travel;

  • An amendment to strengthen the gift rules and eliminate the major loophole allowing lobbyists and others to pay for lavish parties "honoring" Members at the national conventions;

  • An amendment to require disclosure by lobbyists of the multiple ways they provide campaign funds and financial benefits for Members;

  • An amendment to require disclosure of the huge sums being secretly spent by professional lobbying firms to stimulate lobbying of Congress by the public, including multimillion dollar advertising campaigns; and

  • An amendment to strengthen the revolving door provisions, including increasing the period in which Members who leave Congress are prohibited from lobbying their former colleagues.

Travel

 

Major ethics problems have arisen in the House as a result of private interests financing domestic and foreign trips for Members, and providing corporate planes at deeply discounted rates for Members' travel.

 

H.R. 4975 proposes an illusory solution to the problem of privately-funded trips.  While the bill provides a temporary suspension of privately-funded trips for Members, it does so in a way that raises deep concerns about whether these trips will be reinstated as soon as the 2006 congressional elections are over in November.

 

The legislation provides for the House ethics rules to recommend travel rules for Members by December 15, 2006, and sets the stage for establishing in future years a "pre-approval" system by the House Ethics Committee for Members' privately-funded trips.  This approach would not end the travel abuses that have occurred, even if there was a publicly credible House Ethics Committee to approve the trips, which there is not. 

 

Under this approach, furthermore, the temporary suspension of privately-funded trips could be ended after the November elections without any direct vote occurring on ending the suspension or on adopting travel rules for future years.  This could be done by simply incorporating changes in the travel rules into the full package of House rules submitted to the House for a single up-or-down vote by Members at the outset of the new Congress in January 2007.

 

This is an area where disclosure alone will not solve the problems.  Disclosure is already required for privately-financed trips and this has not stopped widespread abuses.

 

We urge you to support an amendment to provide permanent restrictions on privately-financed trips for Members.

 

The House legislation also fails to prevent corporations from making their company planes available for Members' trips at deeply-discounted costs.  This practice is widely used by Members and provides them with privately subsidized travel, often worth thousands of dollars per trip, and with company planes available at their convenience.

 

In return, corporations and others are able to provide substantial financial benefits to Members they are seeking to influence.

 

We urge you to support an amendment to require Members to pay charter rates for company planes made available to Members for trips.

 

Gifts

 

Current House ethics rules limit gifts from a single giver to no more than $50 per individual gift, and an aggregate of $100 per year.  This includes such items as meals and tickets to sporting and entertainment events.  There is no disclosure of these gifts, however, leaving room for widespread evasion to occur.

 

There are proposals to ban gifts or to limit gifts to token amounts.  Any new gift restrictions must close the loophole in the current gift rules that allows lobbyists, their clients and others to finance the lavish five-and six-figure parties given to "honor" specific members of Congress at the national party conventions.

 

Without closing this gift loophole, we will end up prohibiting a lobbyist from paying $100 for a Member's dinner while allowing the same lobbyist to pay $25,000, $50,000 or more, for a party to "honor" the Member.

 

We urge you to support an amendment to strengthen the gift rules and eliminate the major loophole allowing lobbyists and others to pay for lavish parties "honoring" Members at the national conventions.

 

Disclosure of Ways that Lobbyists Provide Financial Help to Members

 

There are multiple ways in which lobbyists provide campaign funds and financial benefits to assist members of Congress.  In many of these cases, no disclosure is currently provided to the public.

 

Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff used money on Capitol Hill in every way he could think of to pursue his lobbying agenda.  Abramoff gave campaign contributions, arranged contributions to be made by his clients, arranged trips, including golfing adventures, provided free meals, provided skybox tickets to sporting events, and the like.

 

These kinds of uses of money, however, are not unique to Abramoff; they are common tools of the Washington lobbying trade.

 

It is essential that any new lobbying legislation provides the public with information on the ways that lobbyists are using money on Capitol Hill to financially assist Members.

 

The Senate-passed lobbying and ethics bill included strong, effective disclosure provisions to accomplish this goal.  When the House Judiciary Committee marked up H.R. 4975 it opened up major loopholes in the Senate-passed disclosure provisions.

 

On April 21, the House Rules Committee made public a revised version of H.R. 4975 that proceeded to eliminate the already loophole-ridden lobbying disclosure provisions reported by the House Judiciary Committee.

 

The Senate bill, for example, requires lobbyists to disclose details for each fundraiser that the lobbyist hosts, co-hosts or otherwise sponsors for a Member or political party. 

 

The bill reported by the Judiciary Committee, however, required this disclosure only if the lobbyist is "stated on the official invitation" as being a host or co-host.  This ensured that the disclosure provision could be easily evaded by lobbyists holding fundraisers for Members, by simply leaving their names off the "official invitation." 

 

Similarly, the Senate bill requires lobbyists to disclose contributions they make, or payments they make or arrange to be made, to pay for the costs of an event to honor or recognize a Member, such as the lavish parties that lobbyists finance for Members at the national conventions. 

 

The House Judiciary Committee bill, however, required this disclosure only for contributions made by lobbyists to finance the parties, and only if the purpose of the event to honor or recognize a Member is expressly stated by the lobbyist or set forth "in official materials describing the event." 

 

This ensured that this disclosure provision also could easily be evaded by lobbyists.  In most cases lobbyists do not make contributions to pay for an event, but instead make direct payments to cover the costs - and disclosure of such payments would no longer be covered.  Lobbyists also could evade disclosure by simply not having any statement in the "official materials" that the purpose of the event is to honor or recognize a Member.

 

The House Rules Committee proceeded to take these two loophole-ridden provisions and drop them entirely from H.R. 4975.  Under the Rules Committee bill, there is no disclosure required at all for fundraising events hosted by lobbyists and no disclosure at all required for funds provided by lobbyists to pay for lavish parties for Members.

 

The House Rules Committee also dropped a disclosure requirement contained in the Senate-passed bill, and in the bill reported by the House Judiciary Committee, that required lobbyists to disclose the payments they made to finance meetings, retreats or conferences held for the benefit of Members.  The House Rules Committee also dropped a provision contained in the House Judiciary Committee bill that required lobbyists to disclose in some circumstance contributions they bundled and delivered to Members.

 

Basically, the House Rules Committee version of H.R. 4975 restores the ability of lobbyists to secretly provide financial assistance in multiple ways to Members, while keeping the public in the dark about these ways in which lobbyists buy access and influence with Members.

 

We urge you to support an amendment, similar to the provision in the Senate-passed bill, to require disclosure by lobbyists of the multiple ways they provide campaign funds and financial benefits for Members

 

Disclosure of Grassroots Lobbying Campaigns

 

The current Lobbying Disclosure Act requires disclosure of lobbying activities that involve direct contact with Congress.  But there is no disclosure required for professional lobbying firms that are retained to spend money on campaigns aimed at stimulating the public to lobby Congress, including multimillion dollar advertising campaigns.

 

This is the case, furthermore, despite the fact that the total amounts being spent on grassroots lobbying campaigns aimed at the public may well exceed the total amounts being spent on direct lobbying activities, which are required to be disclosed.

 

Today, for example, a professional grassroots lobbying firm can spend tens of millions of dollars on a paid advertising campaign to stimulate grassroots lobbying for the passage of a tax break for the oil industry, or an advocacy group can spend large sums on a paid advertising campaign to stimulate lobbying for or against a judicial nominee, without any information being provided to citizens and members of Congress on the amounts being spent on the lobbying campaigns.

 

The Abramoff lobbying scandals illustrated how large sums of money were spent secretly to conduct grassroots lobbying campaigns.

 

Professional grassroots lobbying firms should be required to register and to report the income they receive for conducting grassroots lobbying campaigns, and those organizations that are already required to register under the law should be required to also report the aggregate amount they spend on grassroots lobbying, if the spending is significant-more than $25,000 per quarter.

 

The arguments being made against this proposal are based on misconceptions.

 

The provision would not impair or restrict grassroots lobbying by any organization.  It does not limit the amount any group can spend for such lobbying efforts.

 

The provision would not require any organization to disclose its membership list, or disclose any communications with its members. 

 

The provision specifically exempts an organization's communications with its members from the definition of grassroots lobbying, and similarly exempts volunteer activities conducted on behalf of the organization. 

 

A letter from a coalition of nonprofit groups, organized by OMB Watch, including a number of groups that engage in grassroots lobbying, urged Senators to support the grassroots lobbying provisions in the lobbying legislation.  The letter stated that the provisions in the bill "will help shed light on the 'sham' grassroots operations; all the while preserving the important role nonprofits can play in educating and mobilizing their members to better inform public policy decisions."

 

We urge you to support an amendment, similar to the provision in the Senate-passed bill, to require that professional lobbying firms and lobbying organizations disclose the amounts they spend to stimulate lobbying of Congress by the public, including multimillion dollar advertising campaigns.

 

Strengthen the Revolving Door Rules 

 

There are hundreds of former members of Congress who stayed in Washington to pursue lobbying careers and are registered lobbyists.
 
The current revolving door provisions prohibit members of Congress from directly lobbying Congress for one year after they leave their jobs.  The one-year "cooling off" period, however, is not long enough to provide the separation needed for Members who leave Congress and want to lobby for compensation their former colleagues.

 

H.R. 4975 contains a title called, "Slowing the Revolving Door."  This title of the bill, however, contains no provisions to slow the revolving door.

 

We urge you to support an amendment to strengthen the revolving door provisions, including increasing the period in which Members who leave Congress are prohibited from lobbying their former colleagues.

 

H.R. 4975, in its current form, is illusionary, not real, lobbying and ethics reform.

 

We strongly urge you to support the amendments to strengthen the bill set forth in our letter, in order to achieve strong, effective and comprehensive reforms.  If these amendments are not allowed to come to a vote, or are not adopted on the House floor, we strongly urge you to vote against H.R. 4975 on final passage.

 

Campaign Legal Center  League of Women Voters 
Common Cause  Public Citizen 
Democracy 21  U.S. PIRG